Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Gisèle Rabesahala

Episode Summary

Gisèle Rabesahala (1929-2011) was a celebrated politician, who was devoted to fighting for freedom and Madagascar.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan, and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s leader was a celebrated politician, who was devoted to fighting for freedom and her country. She lived through eras of both colonialism and independence. Let’s talk about Gisèle Rabesahala.

Gisèle Rabesahala was born on May 7, 1929 in Antananarivo, Madagascar. At that point, Madagascar was a French colony.

Gisèle’s family was very politically involved. Her father was an officer in the French army, so she spent most of her childhood moving between his different postings in France, Tunisia, and Mali. When he died in 1942, Gisèle and her family returned to Madagascar.

Though Gisèle initially dreamed of becoming a nun, she decided against it. By the age of 17, she was deeply involved in politics herself. 

In the mid 1940s, some political leaders in Madagascar led efforts to become independent. When they failed to do so through legal channels, some became radicalized and decided to take more violent measures. In 1947, Malagasy nationalists, armed mostly with spears, attacked French military bases across the island. It became known as the 1947 Malagasy Uprising. In response, the French killed many of the Malagasy nationals. Estimates from the French said they killed around 11,000 Malagasy nationals, while Malagasy estimates were way higher, around 100,000 casualties. 

Gisele was actively involved in a campaign for the rights of political prisoners from the Uprising. 

She fought to free thousands of prisoners. She gathered a committee to support prisoners’ families, wrote news articles to attract international attention, and worked with members of Parliament to petition the French president. 

In 1956, Gisèle became the first woman elected as a municipal councilor. She was also the first woman to lead a Malagasy political party, having founded a party called the Union of the Malagasy People.

In 1958, Gisèle united five nationalist organizations to help create the Congress Party for the Independence of Madagascar. After a series of revolts, Madagascar gained full independence in 1960, when France agreed to let it become autonomous.

Gisèle shifted roles from General Secretary of the Congress Party to Minister of Culture and Revolutionary Art. In that role, she committed herself to protecting her people’s heritage.

She founded a National Library in 1979, oversaw the publication of 50 works in the Malagasy language, restored more than 25 national monuments, organized artistic competitions, and created the Malagasy Copyright office in 1985. Her policies helped promote national creativity.

Gisèle served as Minister of Culture until 1991. In 2001, she was also appointed Deputy Speaker of the Senate. For much of her life, Gisèle was also on the editorial board of a nationalist newspaper that opposed French colonial rule.

Gisèle never got married or had any children. When asked about her decision not to do so, she said that she preferred to serve her country instead. 

Gisèle Rabesahala passed away on June 27, 2011 -- one day after the 50th anniversary of Madagascar’s independence. After her death, Madagascar reporters described her as, “Mother Courage, mother of the nation.”

Join us tomorrow to learn about another woman known for her exceptional leadership abilities!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!